For the past few years of my life, save for a couple exceptions, I’ve tried to stay away from YA fiction. That is, until I started to write it, and became drawn to the stories that were pulling so many of my friends in. So I’ve been looking for it a lot lately. Last night, I came across a little gem called Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. It seemed innocent enough. A story about two teenagers who fall in love in the eighties. And it didn’t have vampires in it. So I went for it. And I read it in one sitting like I expected to.
What I didn’t expect was the impact that it had on me. This book is the farthest thing from mindless. Though the two title characters are sixteen, there’s something about their relationship and their experiences that just seems so raw and true. I found myself identifying with them. I had felt what they felt before; I understood.
I laughed. The book was funny. I found myself caught in a current of erratic heartbeats and chest swells as I roared through that book like a transport truck late for a delivery. I ate it. Chewed it, swallowed it, and then realized I had eaten too quickly, because when I finished the book, I was left with the same feeling you get after wolfing down a great donair way too fast. I wanted more.
And as I closed my e-reader (so not the same as closing a real book, but I’ll take what I can get), and let it digest, I became aware of something that I had been running from without even knowing I was doing it. I had been avoiding the teen section at the bookstores because cynical old me thought I was too old for YA (That’s Young Adult Literature, for all you noobs out there). Yeah, and I was probably seventeen when I made that decision, which makes the things seem so much more ridiculous. I thought that YA was somehow romanticizing the life of young people in some stupid cliche fashion that was going to give the wrong ideas to people my age. I thought that writing “teenager” and “love” in the same sentence was dumb and unrealistic. I thought that YA books were trying to turn the adventures of their younger characters into something that could rival the life of an adult, and I thought that was kind of silly. Why? Because I had been told that teenagers and children weren’t capable of the stuff of grown ups by people who were living adult lives since I was probably old enough to string a sentence together.
So I read adult fiction, and by that, I don’t mean erotica. I haven’t so much as touched a copy of Fifty Shades, nor will I ever. I just mean books the the general fiction section. I stocked up on heavy novels with deep political or social meaning as though somehow, books about adults for adults made the adventures, feelings and experiences of the characters much more real.
And then I picked up Eleanor and Park, and I finished it, and finally realized what I had been missing. I’m sorry, lovers and writers of (some) adult work, but your plots are too lofty; your diction tries too hard, and it looks to me that you’re all just little kids wearing big people suits, trying to make yourselves look grown up. All your doing is making yourself look boring. After reading the likes of John Green and Rainbow Rowell, I’ve discovered some things, and remembered other things I had loved during the days of Ramona and Beezus and Nancy Drew. First: adults– and by that, I mean the societal definition of adults–are overrated. I really do think we’re all secretly sixteen-year-olds with skin that wrinkles a little more each year. I think that as people get wrinklier, they feel as though they have to act like they’re wrinkly and they forget what it’s like to be a teenager. I find too many people dismiss the thoughts and feelings of young people as being too melodramatic, or implausible as if age and wisdom was somehow the only thing to legitimize one’s ideas and emotions.
Why is it that our boys and girls put away their comic books and their Lego and the tapes of their favourite pop bands when they hit adulthood? Honestly, I love Lego. Comic books are cool, and I’d be the first one to rock out to the Backstreet Boys on my way home from work. It’s because we’re told that at a certain age, things become childish and somewhere down the line, childish has become a bad thing.
And I think that’s wrong.
I fell for it. So have many of you, probably. And the sad thing is, because we’ve all fallen for it, we criticize teens and young people for feeling and doing as if we’re trying to drag them down with us. But all that’s doing is closing us youngsters off, telling us that we’re being dumb and that we shouldn’t be able to express ourselves. And so we don’t. We keep their mouths shut and our ideas locked away a little tighter each day and slowly as our skin hardens, we become adult.
I just read a novel that focused on teenagers–just like my own work does. One, it should be noted, that I wouldn’t have bothered to pick up before I started my novel. That was because it looked annoying and was meant for teenagers who hadn’t hit the same level of maturity I had in my less than twenty years (Oh, the pretentiousness is killing me). And in it, I have found some of the truest passages about being human that I think exist on the face of the earth. It gives me hope that the message I’m writing will be taken seriously and not tossed aside because my main character is barely out of high school. I wanted to make my Gracie real, and raw and human in ways that I didn’t know YA could do, and now that I know it can, I’m even more excited for what this book has the potential to do.
I got thinking today about all of the things I was afraid to say and do in my stories because I didn’t think anyone would buy it. But today, I’m a little braver, so I’ll tell you three of them.
First, and most importantly, I think, young people can be in love. And I don’t mean all of that stupid lusty stuff adults keep dismissing it for. I mean the kind of deep, true love that people say only happens when you’re old enough to afford a mortgage. The kind that envelopes you and takes every fiber of your being to support. The kind that keeps you up at night, the kind that rejoices when the one you’ve picked gets excited about caterpillars on the sidewalk. The kind that makes you notice really weird– but awesome– things about a person, like how they’ve got nice kneecaps or how they’ve got three giant freckles in the corner of their left eye socket or how they can’t dance at all but somehow watching them do it makes your heart flutter. It’s love in its most purest form, and it is beautiful and fulfilling and because too many people dismiss it for lust (there is a difference people, I promise, but that’s not the point), many of us young folk are scared to express it, because we’re going to be called juvenile and not taken seriously. But you know what? There is no such thing as a proper age to fall in love, and so there is no need to dismiss a book for portraying it before adulthood.
Second: young people are funny. And I don’t mean in the stupid insulting fat jokes kind of funny– of course, I’d be lying if I said I’ve never cracked one, but we all have, and that isn’t the point either– but I mean the intelligent sort that can only come from someone who sees the world differently. There’s something about coming into adulthood that sucks all the fun out of humour, and suddenly jokes need to be horribly crass or to have secret critiques of society in them to be funny. I’m not saying that satire isn’t humourous, I’m just saying I haven’t laughed at a comedian over twenty five, like, ever, and it’s not because I’m not educated either. I have, however, laughed out loud at Junie B. Jones. Like, recently.
Thirdly: young people are smart, and creative and they worry about things, just like adults do. Real, tangible, important things. We worry about the environment and we worry about staying healthy and growing up and having a family and doing something meaningful, and yet our worries are often dismissed as silly. Our schemes for fixing things are said to be impractical and we’re forced at eighteen to choose something plausible to do with the rest of our lives. I wonder what would happen if we were all given the time to let our teenage brains stay on the same track for awhile, wait a little longer to come to fruition. We have the capacity to change the world, and many of us are doing it right now, but I think there’s a lot of potential that’s being snuffed out because we’re all being told that we have to grow up. Maybe the way young people see the world is just what we need to fix it.
Go on out tonight, if you’re bored, and hit the youth section at a library or bookstore. I’d recommend John Green or Rainbow Rowell or hell, even Judy Blume if you’re feeling a classic.
Ever wonder why some of the best books identified in our world right now deal with the lives of mere children?
Go on. Put down your political commentaries and your fact-books. I’m not saying they aren’t good; I’m a fan of a lot of it. But pull off the adult hat for a minute. I think you’ll be surprised by what you find.